SEC: Frank Sanders

1993: The forgotten Iron Bowl

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
10:00
AM ET

It's easy to understand the hype for this year's matchup of No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn. But imagine a game so huge that it sold out two stadiums at the same time.

It's the 20th anniversary of the 1993 Iron Bowl, one of the most unusual matchups in the rivalry's history. That year, defending national champion Alabama was 8-1-1 heading into a matchup with 10-0 Auburn.

But since Auburn was on probation, the game at Jordan-Hare Stadium would become the only battle between the Tide and the Tigers not shown on national television since 1981. And fans clamored to watch it: tickets for that game ($500) were more expensive than they are today ($300).

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Courtesy Bryant Museum Alabama fans who couldn't get to the '93 Iron Bowl in person watched on the stadium screen at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As a result, 47,421 tickets were sold at Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the game via simulcast -- to watch a game on an empty field, on a video board that's nowhere near the size or quality seen in stadiums today. It's widely hailed as the only game ever to sell out two stadiums. But in actuality, Bryant-Denny Stadium seated many more; it just didn't make sense to sell more tickets with the limited sight angles.

Whatever hype is being generated now might pale in comparison to the platitudes surrounding the game two decades ago. Not many broadcasts have ever started off like Auburn’s did that day.

"At a remote outpost in frozen South Korea, an Army sergeant tunes his radio to the Armed Forces Network to listen as he pulls guard duty along the DMZ," Auburn announcer Jim Fyffe said. "A Selma native in Fairbanks, Alaska, is hosting a listening party today with his friends, who will hear the game via telephone, all decked out in orange and blue. A sellout crowd of 85,000 will watch in person, while 44,000 more, who scarfed up all the available tickets, will view a closed-circuit telecast in Tuscaloosa, making this the only game to sell out two stadiums at one time.

"It impacts the lives of just about everyone who lives here or ever has. If your team wins, seashells and balloons. But losing means a whole year of pure agony. It's the annual meeting between Auburn and Alabama. Hello again, everybody. War Eagle! from Jordan-Hare Stadium."

Yet despite its lore, in many ways, it's the forgotten Iron Bowl. Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, the hero of the game, has lost pieces of it over the last two decades. Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden has, too. And like any good story, its legend has grown thanks to the limited amount of people who saw it.

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Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesPatrick Nix knows making a big play in the Iron Bowl is something that will last forever.
But Nix's story carries a message. If current Auburn backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson is listening, Nix says to be ready.

"Someone asked me the other day if this kind of game can make or break somebody, and I think I'm living proof that it can,” Nix said. “You don't know if it's going to be Jeremy Johnson, or it's going to be a backup DB who comes in and makes an interception, or a defensive end that's down the line and makes a crucial sack. You don't know who it will be in a game like this and who will be remembered.

"That's what makes this game so special and this rivalry so special is that it is that big and everyone knows exactly where they are when things like that happen."

Nix is speaking from experience, particularly his time coming off the bench for Auburn in the 1993 Iron Bowl. He came on for the injured Stan White and led a remarkable comeback that sealed the Tigers’ undefeated season.

He has talked about the game countless times, but now, 20 years later, he can't seem to recall who said what and when.

All Nix remembers of that November afternoon is the blasted fourth-and-14 play after White went down with a knee injury. Oddly enough, Nix remembers exactly where his helmet was -- under the bench where a grad assistant left it, just in case. And he can recall fondly how he lobbied his coaches to go for it. Bowden, Auburn's first-year head coach, finally had to tell him to shut up and run the play that very few actually saw, yet everyone professes to remember.

"The story has been exaggerated over the years," Nix said. "One time it's me throwing the winning pass, a last-second pass and all this kind of stuff, and none of that was true. It was the middle of the third quarter and we were still losing.

"There's been a lot of talk of 'Nix to Sanders,' and it all starts with that '93 game."

"I'll be honest with you: I probably gave a great speech because I was so excited, but I don't remember," said Bowden, now the head coach at Akron. "I'd like to think I gave a speech that had an impact on the players, but I've given too many that I thought were great but didn't do much. If I did, I'm glad that I did, but over the years, this being the 20th anniversary, too many pregame speeches have run together."

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJordan-Hare Stadium will play host to this year's Iron Bowl, but which team will create a lasting memory?
It's funny, Nix explained, that so many fans remember the touchdown he threw to Frank Sanders as the winning play -- a beautiful lob pass down the near sideline just shy of the goal line -- when in fact it only pulled Auburn within two points. It took a field goal and a late touchdown run to seal the victory.

"The hard work paid off," said Nix, who has gone on to lead the football program at Scottsboro High (Ala.). "The coaches knew how hard I prepared for that moment, never knowing it was going to be like that. And when it came, I took advantage of it."

"When I put Patrick Nix in, his arm's not so strong that he could throw the takeoff to the field side, so I flipped my formation and put Frank in the boundary," Bowden said of the famous touchdown pass. "Well, you see Antonio Langham start to come halfway across the field before he waved himself off. The other cornerback was good, but Antonio was a first-rounder. Well, I always wonder if Frank could have out-jumped Antonio."

A replay of the broadcast can be found online, but for those at the center of the game, some memories have faded in the last 20 years.

"There are a bunch of stories I've heard about where people were when I completed that pass against Alabama," Nix said. "Probably the craziest one was that someone was at a funeral and they were riding in the procession in the car. They were one of the pallbearers and they all wouldn't get out of the car at the funeral because of the fourth-down play. All the pallbearers stayed in the car listening to the radio, and then when it was completed the car just went crazy, rocking and everything. They all had to get out of the car and be very solemn and they were all trying to control themselves at a funeral.

"It's a different rivalry, a different deal and people don't always act quite sane over it. But it's a lot of fun."

Enormous stakes for this year's Iron Bowl

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
12:44
AM ET
Go ahead and get ready. This will be the most anticipated Iron Bowl that we've seen in 20 years.

After Auburn's unbelievable 43-38 win against Georgia on Saturday, the Tigers will still miraculously control their destiny when Alabama visits the Plains on Nov. 30.

Everybody who predicted that in August, raise your hands. For those two or three true believers, wow, congratulations. Your team is set to play in the most impactful meeting between the nation's most heated rivals since 1994. (I was there at Legion Field that night, and if you try to convince me Frank Sanders was short on that fourth down, I'll fight you.)

Sure, 2010 was huge -- and with the way that game evolved, with Cam Newton's Auburn team rallying for a 28-27 win, it lived up to every bit of the pregame hype. But Auburn and Alabama haven't entered this game with one or no losses since that crazy matchup I mentioned in Birmingham. And I expect every bit of the same buildup and mayhem that preceded that game, in the heyday of what has been an extremely cyclical rivalry ever since.

Back then, this was a fairly common occurrence. The Iron Bowl regularly had mutual national-championship implications in the late 1980s and early '90s. But this rivalry hasn't been in that position in some time, and here we are.

Auburn is off next week. And Alabama might as well be, with FCS opponent Chattanooga visiting Tuscaloosa next weekend. The outcome is incidental, as AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley will be on the sidelines early in the third quarter, while the reserves complete a sure blowout and only add to the buildup for a winner-take-all showdown in Auburn the following Saturday.

When they meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, the implications are simple. Win and play for the SEC (and maybe the BCS) title. The loser ... well who cares where they go bowling? You win or you lose in this one, and that's all anyone in Atmore and Gordo and Sylacauga will discuss for the next 364 days -- and for a long while after that. Although I haven't lived in Alabama in the past 14 years, I can tell you who won the Iron Bowl every single year that I've been alive.

Comparatively, it flew under the radar, but we also gained a bit of clarity on who might face the Auburn-Alabama winner in the SEC championship game. With its heartbreaking loss, in which safeties Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons failed to break up Auburn's game-winning Hail Mary touchdown pass, Georgia is out of the running in the SEC East. Meanwhile, South Carolina's 19-14 win over Florida ensured that the Gamecocks are still alive and well in the division race.

We could discover next weekend whether South Carolina or Missouri will face the Iron Bowl winner. But the West will go right down to the wire -- and it will see its two most heated rivals determine the division championship.

We haven't seen it come down to that most bitter rivalry for a while, but that's what is now approaching over the next two weeks. Buckle up. It's a trip straight into this league's past.

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